China’s rise and Tiger Moms: today’s ‘Yellow Peril’?

Is the “Yellow Peril” fear that gripped America in the late 1800s making a comeback? Indiana University historian Ellen Wu asks that provocative question in a recent essay for History News Network.

Wu links alarmist news accounts about China as a rising superpower to U.S. stereotypes of high-achieving Asian-American children. Together, she contends, they make for a worrisome mix.

Ellen Wu

Ellen Wu

She says Americans are understandably concerned by the Chinese government’s intolerance of dissent, environmental devastation from China’s industrialization and Chinese ownership of U.S. debt. But she argues that history teaches that “what happens ‘over there’ matters deeply for us ‘over here’ — and what matters can quickly cross the line from the discursive to the material, from thinking to action.”

Wu, an assistant professor of history at IU Bloomington, is the author of “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.

In the HNN article, she traces the history of the Yellow Peril fear tied to racism and discrimination that long excluded Chinese immigrants from participation in American civic life. “Akin to Jim Crow in the South, the Chinese Exclusion regime lasted from the 1850s through the 1940s,” she writes. “Popular representations of ‘Orientals’ as rat-eating, opium-smoking, sexually depraved, untrustworthy sub-humans provided the racial logic that justified Exclusion.”

Things changed for Chinese-Americans during World War II, when China and the U.S. were allies in fighting Japan. Later, many Chinese-Americans identified themselves with Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese nationalists and were embraced by the U.S. majority as fellow anti-Communists.

“Racial liberals — including savvy Chinese-American spokespersons — convincingly turned the community’s association with the ‘good’ China into social capital in the 1950s,” Wu writes. “Amidst the country’s panic over juvenile delinquency, scores of journalists, scholars and policymakers lauded ethnic Chinese households for raising exceptionally well-behaved, studious children.”

The result was the stereotype of Chinese-Americans as the “model minority”: disciplined, industrious and family-oriented. But has the “model minority” become a bit too model? Wu points to the sensation created by Amy Chua’s bestseller “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which suggested parents of Asian descent are raising children who will out-compete the lazy and spoiled offspring of non-Asians.

She says the book tied Americans’ anxieties about social class to “the latest iteration of the Yellow Peril,” the rise of China as the America’s chief global competitor. The Yellow Peril idea, she concludes, has never gone away. It and the “model minority” stereotype are instead “two sides of the same coin.”

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